What are the most compelling position battles to watch in the NFC South as teams take to the field for organized team activities on Tuesday?
NFL Nation reporters Vaughn McClure (who covers the Atlanta Falcons), David Newton (Carolina Panthers), Mike Triplett (New Orleans Saints) and Pat Yasinskas (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) are here to break it down.
McClure: Running back. This position became compelling when the Falcons drafted Indiana’s Tevin Coleman in the third round. Coleman, a 2,000-yard rusher last season, boldly claimed he was ready to take over the starting job. Problem is, the Falcons have expressed plenty of faith in second-year player Devonta Freeman, who told me he wants to take his game to another level and maybe be in the MVP conversation one day. Freeman and Coleman will push each other daily, which should only benefit the Falcons going into the 2015 season. Freeman has impressed the new coaching staff with his pass-catching skills, while both players have to show the ability to consistently block when it comes to pass protection. I anticipate a two-back system with equal reps as the Falcons make a concerted effort to bring more offensive balance with a stronger run game. And don’t count out the contribution of explosive Antone Smith, who could be back to his old self once he fully recovers from a broken leg.
Newton: Most might say left tackle for the Panthers, but it's compelling only in that it is the biggest concern. I don't really see a battle there unless Michael Oher proves to be a huge disappointment. The real battle will be at right tackle, where Mike Remmers is the incumbent getting a strong push from fourth-round draft pick Daryl Williams, Nate Chandler and possibly Jonathan Martin. I'll be curious to see which player between Martin and Chandler moves behind Oher to create competition there. Chandler, who started the first 11 games at right tackle last season before suffering a knee injury, isn't expected to do a lot during OTAs as he continues to rehab. So if a player moves to the left side now it likely will be Martin, unless the Panthers shuffle Chris Scott from guard to tackle. Regardless, Remmers will have his hands full holding off the competition. The good news is last year the battle was on the left side between Byron Bell and Chandler for the left tackle spot, with the loser going to the right side. The team was that thin at both tackles.
Triplett: The Saints' two most compelling position battles were created in Round 1 of the NFL draft. They selected massive offensive tackle Andrus Peat out of Stanford with the 13th pick, even though they already have two solid starters in left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Zach Strief. Strief, 31, arguably has been New Orleans' most consistent lineman over the past two years, but Peat has him beat in the upside department. Strief had a great line the other day when he bluntly assessed the scenario: "Look, he's taking my job eventually. That's definitely happening at some point. So my job and my role is to make sure that takes as long as possible." Likewise, veteran inside linebackers David Hawthorne and newly acquired Dannell Ellerbe will try to hold off rookie Stephone Anthony, the 31st pick of the draft. The Saints envision Anthony as a middle linebacker who ultimately can call signals as the "quarterback" of their D. Hawthorne currently is penciled into that role after the Saints released veteran Curtis Lofton this offseason.
Yasinskas: The Bucs will have two position battles that I find especially compelling. First, there's running back. Doug Martin has been the starter the past three seasons. But he's coming off a disappointing season and the coaching staff and front office don't seem sold on a player they didn't draft. They did draft Charles Sims last year and the coaches are very high on him. Sims could end up beating out Martin. The other position of note is cornerback. Alterraun Verner is set as one starter, but the other position is up for grabs. Mike Jenkins was supposed to be the No. 2 starter last year, but suffered a season-ending injury. That cleared the way for Johnthan Banks to move into the starting lineup, and he played well. Jenkins is going to have a tough time taking the position back from Banks.